There are many ways to pay tribute to Donna Summer, the diva of disco who sadly died yesterday of cancer.
The most obvious way is to listen to her many hits, or watch her videos on YouTube. As I did yesterday, you could view the “She Works Hard for the Money” clip multiple times and ponder its themes of female empowerment. Or you could read this tribute. Or this one. Or this one.
Or you could do the only thing that makes sense on this particular day: watch Summer in her one and only big-screen role, as Nicole Sims in the 1978 ensemble disco saga, “Thank God It’s Friday,” a film released almost exactly 34 years ago, on May 19, 1978.
“Saturday Night Fever” was obviously the definitive cinematic expression of the leisure suit era, but “Thank God It’s Friday” — the story of the high jinks, hopes and dreams of a bunch of people who go to a disco called the Zoo on the same night — boasted many elements that “Saturday Night Fever” lacked.
It featured a performance by the Commodores.
It gave us dialogue in which people said things like, “Hey, don’t give me that funky jive, man” and really meant it.
It boasted appearances by a young Debra Winger and Jeff Goldblum, who played the owner of the Zoo and, as this shoddy YouTube clip demonstrates, gave the performance of his career. Well, assuming you don’t count “The Fly” or “Jurassic Park” or “The Big Chill.” Oh, or “Tenspeed and Brownshoe.”
Terri Nunn, frontwoman for the band Berlin, is in it, too, before she turned her hair into that awesome blond-with-black-tips ‘do. She plays a high shool girl whose dream is to win the prize in a disco dance contest: tickets to a Kiss concert. There’s an oxymoron in there somewhere.
Another storyline involves a guy named Dave who gets drugged, then is given the nickname Babbakazoo by his wife. Sure, they ripped off that plot point from Francis Ford Coppola — you remember the big Babbakazoo scene in “The Godfather,” right? — but it’s still an inspired twist.
Also, “Thank God It’s Friday” is the only movie I know of in which the Columbia Pictures statue in the opening titles actually boogies.
But most importantly, “Thank God It’s Friday” features Donna Summer playing a feisty, aspiring disco star even though she was already an established disco star in real life. And as such, she introduced the world to “Last Dance,” one of her signature tunes and a track that would go on to win the Academy Award for best original song, making the following sentence accurate. “Thank God It’s Friday” is an Oscar-winning film.
Watch some of her work below. And if you want to see the whole film — and really, how could you not want to do that right this very second? — you can do so on Amazon or by digging through your old VHS tapes of ’70s classics like this one and “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.”